So why go to Icy Bay? Well, firstly because it’s such an amazing place. The scenery is superb – National Geographic list Icy Bay as one of the world’s top 10 treasures. Secondly, I’m working on a book on Wrangell – St. Elias National Park and Icy Bay is in the park. Thirdly, I hadn’t been there before. 4th, the natural history of the place is so unique. Icy Bay is a relatively new place, with the recent retreat of 3 glaciers, the Guyot, the Tindall and the Yahtse, there are now 4 fjords, filled with the cool waters of the northern Pacific Ocean.
When the area was first explored by European ships 150-200 years ago, Icy Bay didn’t even exist. John Muir, the great naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, visited the area a little over 100 years ago, and Icy Bay didn’t exist. It was a massive glacial wall that met the ocean’s shore. Basically, since 1900, the glaciers retreated and the valleys they left behind were quickly filled with tidal waters from the ocean. Calving from the active Guyot and Yahtse glaciers have covered the Tsaa fjord, and the 2 other fjords that approach the glaciers, with icebergs – I mean, covered – it’s just about impossible to get in there by boat in the summer. Glaciers advancing is a rare feat these days, but these 3 glaciers have all advanced in the last year, a unique occurrence in todays era of global climate change.
Tidal glaciers tend to be somewhat unaffected by global warming, because they’re so impact by other influences, such as the ocean and the shape of the surrounding landscapes – oftentimes they’ll shrink and then grow in a repeating cycle. The St. Elias mountain range in this region, just north and west of Yakutat, catch huge snowfalls every year, so the glaciers are built up over the winter, and their own weight force them forward. Reaching the ocean, they move forward until they reach deeper waters, which increases the calving rate. When that rate surpasses the rate at which they’re advancing, the glaciers begin to retreat, and move backwards, and the tidal waters fill with the basin what we call a fjord.
So as the ice moves out, water, and life, follows, successional plants, like alders, fireweed, and lupine, move in. Fish move in to the fjords, followed by marine mammals like whales, sea otters, sea lions and seals. Birds move in, sea birds like gulls and jaegers, ducks, murresm murrelets, and the one posted above, the Oystercatcher. Animals move in, like bears and moose and mountain goats.
How cool is that? That’s gotta be reason enough for a trip to Icy Bay, right? Well, sure, but I’ll post another reason tomorrow.